Posted: Monday August 15, 2005 5:04PM; Updated: Monday August 15, 2005 5:04PM
OAXACA, Mexico -- There are no sunsets in Oaxaca, because the sun -- much like Terrell Owens -- refuses to be a team player. Here in the middle of Mexico, in this quaint town nestled between vivid green mountain ranges, the sun makes only the briefest of appearances, peeking out from the clouds, winking and nodding, then retiring to hide for another hour or so.
Not that I'm complaining. After enduring a summer of oppressive heat in New York, I jumped at opportunity to travel somewhere temperate. One of Wifey's best friends was getting married in Oaxaca, and with Wifey serving as the matron of honor, we sort of had to go.
My wife is fluent in Spanish, so when we travel to Spanish-speaking countries, I'm usually covered (I only know un poquito). But down here, she was mostly at rehearsals and spa treatments, leaving me solamente in a country where I couldn't readily communicate. French, I can handle, but when I try to speak Spanish, French words inevitably pop into my head, so I sound like some wacky Berlitz student: "Hello, do you have for me quesadillas of some chickens?" Humbled, I walked Oaxaca in silence, wandering through open-air markets perfumed by fresh fruit and barbequed grasshoppers, and rested by hanging in the room and watching 100 Mexicanos Dijeron, not understanding much, yet transfixed by the likeable host. (Even worse, the hotel swore they had Internet access in the rooms but they didn't, so I ended up writing this column on my T-Mobile Sidekick.)
With time to kill, I determined that I should do something sports-related, something that might enhance my life experience and perhaps give me a deeper understanding of competition and why we love sports (and also give me something to write about today). So I went out and bought the local paper, the Imparcial, and discovered two events scheduled for Sunday afternoon: soccer and baseball. The local futbol side, Cruz Azul, had a match in the Tourneo Apertura, the opening tournament of the Mexican domestic league, against Irapuato. Across town, the Guerreros de Oaxaca, the Oaxaca Warriors, were embroiled in the Mexican Baseball League playoffs against the Puebla Tigres. I found a box score from a previous baseball game, but didn't recognize any names from either team. Also, an ad for the soccer game touted tickets at just 50 pesos, or $5, per person, so Cruz Azul it would be. And since the wedding would be over, I made Wifey promise to come along and translate for me.
We spent Sunday morning at Monte Alban, ancient ruins from the Zapotec era, which, besides several crumbling buildings and obelisks, included a sunken field that resembled a soccer stadium. I asked if it was an arena for one of those games where they played with a human head, but a guide looked at me like I was crazy and said no, they used a rubber ball. Still, their sport was a precursor to soccer, and I took it as a validation of my soccer plans.
Five hours later, back in Oaxaca, Wifey and I arrived at Estadio Benito Juarez. Our $5 tickets were the best in the house, since the whole place was general admission. It was a small stadium, with a capacity of probably no more than 5,000, but it sat at the base of stunning mountains and limitless vistas, kind of like Denver or Salt Lake City. We arrived 15 minutes before kickoff, and the crowd was sparse -- perhaps 500 people were there. Vendors carried bags of popcorns and chips in one hand, bottles of hot sauce in the other. A woman came by with a bucket of ice cold Corona bottles. They were going for just 10 pesos ($1) apiece.
People continued filtering in throughout the first half, the crowd ultimately reaching around 1,500. The fans may have been slow to arrive, but they were definitely involved, beating drums, singing, even setting off a flare at one point. My favorite fan was a man in the front row no more than 10 feet behind the Irapuato bench. He had a power generator on the concrete at his feet, and he was using it to power a tremendous horn, the kind that is normally mounted atop an 18-wheeler and can blow your hair straight back. This horn was on a tripod, and anytime the Irapuato manager left his bench to give instructions to his team, the man would blast the horn, swiveling it back and forth to follow any movement from the poor, muted coach. This fan had such a singular focus at his job, not missing any chance to deafen everyone within a 200-foot radius, that it was nearly as entertaining as the game itself.
I was hoping to find a game unlike we often see in America, with loud music, distracting cheerleaders, things being thrown into the crowd. But they had all of that in Oaxaca, just on a smaller scale. In fact, the cheerleaders were so provocative, performing a lascivious halftime bump-and-grind routine, that they made the Knicks City Dancers seem like Up With People.
The main difference I found in Oaxaca was that the fans were all actually fans. There were no corporate boxes, no laid-back season ticket holders populating the first 20 rows. When a goal was disallowed after an offsides call, everyone moaned and threw their hands in the air. There was no scoreboard, so attention was paramount. When the cheerleaders threw soccer balls into the stands to close their halftime dance, everyone rushed forward en masse, hoping for a souvenir. Perhaps that is the definition of Estadio Benito Juarez, a place where sports still belong to the real fans. It's a nice thought, one that will probably never again exist in the major U.S. sports.
As I type all this into my phone, my thumbs wearing away to nubs, the game is tied at 1 with about 15 minutes left. Irapuato is a man down, and Cruz Azul is pressing hard. I realize I could be back in New York, in the smothering heat, watching the end of the PGA Tournament or a baseball game. But sitting here right now, in perfect 80-degree weather, the lush mountains towering above me, a bass drum thumping like a heartbeat, the truck horn blaring intermittently, a cold beer sweating next to me on the cement bleachers, surrounded by fans living and dying with each crossing pass, it strikes me that this is exactly what it's all about.